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Posts tagged: "Digital transformation"

    Six reasons why digital transformation is still a problem for government

  • Posted on August 4, 2021 by

    It’s revealing to look at the timeline of digital transformation initiatives over the last 25 years. Government’s ambition for ‘world class’ services using joined-up systems and data goes back to the mid 1990s, from where we can trace a steady stream of policies and initiatives right through to last autumn’s National Data Strategy. Most of these cover similar ground, which shows how hard genuine transformation is.

    Repeated cycles of vision for radical digital change have been accompanied by perhaps an overly simplistic view of the ease of implementation. Government is not a greenfield site where brand new systems can be created at will. New ways of doing business and services need to fit into a government landscape still dominated by legacy systems and data. As a result, well-intentioned initiatives have petered out, falling short of achieving their intended outcomes.

    It’s important not to see this report as just another commentary on project and programme management failures. In business transformation initiatives with significant digital elements, the intangible nature and use of novel technology introduces many more ‘unknown unknowns’. Contrast this with infrastructure projects, where people can visualise the end product within the laws of physics. This allows a clearer sense from the outset of what is realistically feasible.

    Digital leaders bring experience and understand the challenges well. But they often struggle to get the attention, understanding and support they need from other senior decision-makers. This is borne out by a recent government review into Organising for digital delivery which identified a significant challenge of low technical fluency across the civil service leadership generally. This contrasts with the commercial world where technology is increasingly seen as a critical delivery lever and senior leaders are expected to have a clear understanding of how to deploy it effectively.

    Six reasons why

    We wanted to shine a light on the systemic issues that need to be tackled before a programme even gets underway, using our past reports as illustrations. When implementing digital business change programmes here are six things to get right at the outset.

    1. Understand your aims, ambition and risk by:
    • Avoiding unrealistic ambition with unknown levels of risks
    • Ensuring the business problem is fully understood before implementing a solution
    • Planning realistic timescales for delivery, which are appropriate to the scope and risk of the programme.
    1. Engage with commercial partners through:
    • Spending enough time and money exploring requirements with commercial partners at an early stage
    • Adopting a more flexible contracting process that recognises scope and requirements may change
    • Working towards a partnership model based on collaboration with commercial suppliers.
    1. Develop a better approach to legacy systems and data through:
    • Better planning for replacing legacy systems and ensure these plans are appropriately funded
    • Recognising the move to the cloud will not solve all the challenges of legacy
    • Addressing data issues in a planned and incremental way, to reduce the need for costly manual exercises.
    1. Use the right mix of capacity, make sure you:
    • Are clear about what skills government wants to develop and retain, and what skills are more efficient to contract out
    • Better align political announcements, policy design and programme teams’ ability to deliver through closer working between policy, operational and technical colleagues.
    1. Consider the choice of delivery method through:
    • Recognising that agile methods are not appropriate for all programmes and teams
    • When using agile methods ensure strong governance, effective coordination of activities and robust progress reporting are in place.
    1. Develop effective funding mechanisms by:
    • Ensuring that requirements for both capital and resource funding are understood and can be provided for.
    • Seeing technology as part of a service that involves people, processes and systems in order to better consider the economic case for investment.

    We recognise that addressing the challenges around digital business change programmes is difficult but using these six lessons will support practical improvements. If you want to find out more, our report The challenges in implementing digital change looks into why large scale government programmes repeatedly run into difficulties.

    About the author: 

    Yvonne Gallagher

    Yvonne Gallagher

    Yvonne is our digital transformation expert, focused on assessing the value for money of the implementation of digital change programmes. Yvonne has over 25 years’ experience in IT, business change, digital services and cyber and information assurance, including as CIO in two government departments and senior roles in private sector organisations, including the Prudential and Network Rail.


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  • Better data means better services – so how can government get there?

  • Posted on April 29, 2021 by

    The shielding programme was a swift government wide response to identify and protect clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) people against COVID-19.

    Our recent report on Protecting and supporting the clinically extremely vulnerable during lockdown, shows how government quickly recognised the need to provide food, medicines and basic care to those CEV people shielding. This had to be pulled together rapidly as there were no detailed contingency plans.

    But there was a problem.  In order to do this, government was faced with the urgent task of identifying the people who needed support based on existing, disparate data sources.

    Difficulties in extracting and combining data

    The urgency of this exercise was recognised by all involved, but difficulties in extracting, matching and validating data from across many different systems meant that it took time for people to be identified as CEV.

    At the start of the pandemic, there was no mechanism to allow a fast ‘sweep’ across all patients to identify, in real time, those who fell within a defined clinical category.

    It was a major challenge to identify and communicate with 1.3 million people by extracting usable data from a myriad of different NHS and GP IT systems all holding data differently.

    This lack of joined-up data systems meant NHS Digital had to undertake the task of accessing and extracting GP patient data, stored in different ways in each practice and holding specific details about people’s medical conditions to merge with their own databases. It took a huge effort by the team to complete this task in three weeks.

    Data issues were not resolved by the time of the second lockdown

    Government had identified systems were not capable of ‘speaking’ to each other across hospital, primary care, specialist and adult social care services following the first iteration of shielding (March – August 2020), and sought to apply them to the second lockdown towards the end of 2020. However, our report highlighted resolving the data issues was not an area where significant progress had been or could be made.

    This reflects the wider issues of data across government

    These challenges are examples of broader issues that we have previously highlighted in our report on Challenges in using data across government. People often talk about better use of data as if this is a simple undertaking. But there are significant blockers and constraints that require sustained effort to overcome, which apply to all areas of government trying to use and share data other than for the single purpose it was originally created for.

    The basic issues are widely known and acknowledged:

    • Huge variability in the quality and format of data across government organisations
    • Lack of standardisation within departmental families and across organisational boundaries making it difficult for systems to interoperate
    • The extent of legacy IT systems across government further compounding the difficulties
    • Ownership and accountability aren’t easily agreed where a shared dataset of personal data is brought together and has equal value to different services.

    It’s unclear to us how calls to establish and enforce data standards are going to work in practice if existing systems can’t be modified to support them and there is no firm timetable, road map or funding commitment for replacing them.

    In our report Digital transformation in the NHS, we reported that 22% of trusts did not consider that their digital records were reliable, based on a self-assessment undertaken in 2017. The average replacement cycle for a patient records system is something in the region of once every 15 years so this change isn’t going to happen overnight.

    Our aim is to support government in tackling these issues, and not to be critical of past failings, because we recognise that it is hard. We set out a number of recommendations in our data report and they are summarised in our accompanying data blog.

    Some are aimed at the centre of government and others are steps that individual organisations can take. Our cross-government recommendations were primarily around accountabilities, governance, funding and developing rules and common ways of doing things.

    Our recommendations for individual organisations are:

    • Put in place governance for data, including improving the executive team’s understanding of the issues associated with the underlying data and the benefits of improving that data
    • Set out data requirements in business cases. This should include an assessment of the current state of the data, and the improvements or new data that are necessary. These assessments should have an explicit consideration of ethics and safe use
    • Implement guidance for front-line staff for handling data, including standardisation, data ethics and quality.

    Organisations that hold a cohesive view of their citizen/patient data must address this issue in a managed and incremental way, rather than having to resort to one-off costly exercises which have to be repeated when the next need arises. This will require sustained effort and perseverance.

    Unfortunately, there are no easy shortcuts, but with a will to put in the necessary effort progress can be made one step at a time.

    Yvonne Gallagher

    Yvonne Gallagher

    Yvonne is our digital transformation expert, focused on assessing the value for money of the implementation of digital change programmes. Yvonne has over 25 years’ experience in IT, business change, digital services and cyber and information assurance, including as CIO in two government departments and senior roles in private sector organisations, including the Prudential and Network Rail.


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  • Right data, right place, right time

  • Posted on July 16, 2019 by

    Image of woman with laptop and data flying out

    Have you ever had the frustration of having to provide the same information about yourself to different government services? Have you ever had to make decisions without information about what does and doesn’t work? Data is fundamental to delivering public services, improving systems and processes, and supporting sound decisions – but accessing accurate data is far from easy. Drawing from our recent report, Challenges in using data across government, I highlight here some of the difficulties, their implications and ways they can be addressed.

    more… Right data, right place, right time



  • Cloud services: asking the right questions

  • Posted on June 27, 2019 by

    Image of cloud computing

    ‘Cloud services’ can bring cost and performance benefits. But they can also bring new challenges and risks. To help leaders oversee decision-making and implementation of cloud services, we recently published ‘Guidance for audit committees on cloud services’. The magazine, Public Sector Executive, invited us to outline the issues in the article The National Audit Office’s guide to cloud services and has kindly allowed us to reproduce it on this Blog.

    more… Cloud services: asking the right questions


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  • Risks, resources and government-supplier relationships

  • Posted on July 17, 2018 by

    Image of people rolling boulder up hillHundreds of major change programmes, increasing demands on and expectations of public services, productivity challenges – and the massive task of leaving the EU. In the face of such demands on skills and capacity, Sir Amyas Morse, Comptroller & Auditor General, spoke recently to the Whitehall and Industry Group (WIG) about why the public sector needs private and third sector skills, experience and capacity more than ever. The NAO Blog summarises Sir Amyas’s talk about some of the current key priorities and what is needed to make the relationship mutually successful and in the best interests of people and public services. more… Risks, resources and government-supplier relationships



  • Successful transformation: voices of experience

  • Posted on June 29, 2018 by

    Digitalised picture of caterpillar turning into a butterflyEvolution or revolution? Inventing new services or transforming old systems and processes? Transformation programmes are complex, ever-changing and face numerous barriers; so what does it take to be one of the minority of transformation projects that succeed? How can organisations’ Boards improve the chance of success? And what does transformation have to do with wagon trains? more… Successful transformation: voices of experience


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  • Cross-government collaboration: lessons from R&D

  • Posted on February 16, 2018 by

    Photo of scientists working togetherLife-saving drugs, step-changes in energy efficiency, robots and amazing new materials that can transform our lives – these, and many scientific advances, are all the result of research and development (R&D). The UK funds £31.6 billion of R&D a year, and its success depends frequently on collaboration between a wide range of government departments, and with research councils, university bodies, businesses, charities and international organisations. As we look at the fascinating world of R&D, we can also learn much for all types of cross-government collaboration and coordination. more… Cross-government collaboration: lessons from R&D



  • Engaging, sharing, innovative Award winners

  • Posted on January 5, 2018 by

    Civil Service Award winnersThe 2017 Civil Service Awards highlighted some of the tremendous work being done to deliver public services not only more efficiently and cost effectively, but in ways that meet people’s needs better, engage users more, and stimulate ongoing improvements. In reviewing the 2017 nominations, I was particularly taken by the range of innovative approaches and excellent use of engagement and feedback loops. more… Engaging, sharing, innovative Award winners


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  • Stretching civil servants’ capability

  • Posted on July 20, 2017 by

    Civil service stretchedThe civil service is under pressure, as we found in our recent report Capability in the Civil Service. It has lost one in four civil servants since 2006 – with no reduction in workload, there’s a growing number of major projects to implement, greater public demand for services, new technologies – bringing both opportunities and threats, new ways of delivering public services, and action needed to leave the European Union. How can public sector organisations get or develop the people and skills they need? The first thing is: prioritise; it simply must do less. more… Stretching civil servants’ capability



  • WannaCry: what does it mean for government?

  • Posted on June 23, 2017 by

    WannaCryWannaCry, the 12th of May global cyber attack, brought home clearly one of the key cyber security risks to government services: loss of access to data. This ransomware attack didn’t target the NHS, but the NHS was particularly affected by it, causing extensive disruption to patients and healthcare for a week. With digital transformation of public services a key government priority, what lessons from this episode can the government learn to protect public services from cyber attacks? more… WannaCry: what does it mean for government?


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  • About the NAO blog

    Our experts share their views about issues and common challenges facing government, what public sector leaders should look out for and how organisations have addressed issues. Our posts draw together threads from across our reports, share secrets spilled in events and reveal our experts’ expectations for the future.

    We encourage comments that support the exchange of ideas for improvement, but ask that those posting are respectful of others.

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